HALIFAX – Canadians are divided on whether they believe genetically modified foods are safe and healthy, but they overwhelmingly believe that GMO food products should be labelled, a new study from Dalhousie University shows.

The preliminary results of the study, titled Biotechnology in Food: Canadian Attitudes towards Genetic Engineering in both Plant- and Animal-based Foods, were published on May 24. Researchers surveyed 1,046 people to measure Canadian attitudes towards genetic engineering in food, and assess trust toward food safety and the regulatory system in Canada.

“We wanted to better understand how Canadians are coping with the biotechnology they find on their dinner plates,” says Sylvain Charlebois, lead author of the study and professor of food distribution and policy in Dalhousie’s Faculty of Management. “With genetically modified livestock now available, we felt Canadians deserved a much broader conversation on what these changes mean to the average consumer.”

An overwhelming 70 per cent of survey respondents strongly agreed that GMO food and ingredients should be labelled on all packages. But respondents were divided on whether GMO foods are safe: 37.7 per cent believe them to be safe; 34.7 per cent think they are not. While 35 per cent believe that the health effects are understood, more than 44 per cent believe they are not.

Many Canadians are uncertain about what is in their food. A total of 52 per cent of respondents said they were “unsure” whether they had purchased GMO plant-based food and 55.5 per cent were unsure whether they had purchased animal-based GMO food.

“The results of this study show that Canadians are confused about GMO foods and that the public and private sector has to do a better job of educating consumers,” says Simon Somogyi from Dalhousie’s Faculty of Agriculture.

He explains: “I think much of the fear and hysteria associated with GMO food has to do with the term ‘modified.’ The word gives a negative impression as opposed to the term ‘engineered.’ For example, would you prefer to drive your car over a bridge that has been modified, or one that has been engineered? The wording makes a difference.”

The study shows that Canadians are concerned most about GMO fish and seafood, followed by pork, beef, poultry and dairy. They are least concerned about GMO fruits and vegetables. “Canada is moving to a more plant-based diet, which will most likely involve more genetic engineering,” says Somogyi. “It’s heartening that the produce industry has the greatest level of trust with consumers.”

While the study points to concerns, GMO-free food isn’t necessarily the most important consideration on shoppers’ minds. Price, absence of hormones and antibiotics, nutritional content, familiarity with the product and location of production are still more important factors in purchasing decisions.

That could be good news for GMO food producers. “One can argue that genetically modified crops or animals might represent food safety and even environmental risks, but Canadians may see an advantage in embracing genetic food engineering with mandatory labelling,” says Charlebois. “When consumers are given a clear choice about whether their food contains GMO ingredients, some products could become cheaper.”

“The results of this study are timely,” says Somogyi. “Canada and the rest of the world faces the challenge of feeding over 9-billion people by 2050 and biotechnology such as GMO can help us produce more nutritious food more efficiently to meet this challenge.”

In addition to Dr. Charlebois and Dr. Somogyi, Janet Music, a Master of Public Administration graduate, and Caitlin Cunningham, a Master of Environmental Studies graduate contributed to the report.